WASHINGTON – When Indians learned in March that Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, was retiring at the end of his term in January 2013, they knew that they were losing one of the strongest advocates on Native issues in Congress. Coupled with the loss to retirement of Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., at the beginning of 2011 (as well as several other major retirements in both the House and Senate), some major shoes are left to be filled. But Akaka, in an exclusive year-end interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, says not to worry—new and old advocates will step up, he predicts. Plus, he’s not gone yet—and he’s got a lot of big plans in store for Natives in 2012.
In looking back on your past year leading the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, what memories stand out brightest to you?
Chairing this Committee is an extraordinary honor for me as a Native Hawaiian, and a responsibility I take very seriously as a Senator. The relationship between the United States and its Native peoples is one of the cornerstones of our great country. As the second indigenous person to chair this Committee [behind former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell], I have enjoyed hearing from Native communities on their innovations and efforts to protect and advance their cultural identities and homelands. They have shown that when empowered, Native communities can solve their own challenges effectively using their own cultural values.
Your hearings have addressed a lot of Indian country issues that have been on the back burner for a long time—but not much in terms of concrete legislative successes have happened this year. Why do you think that is?
The Committee has worked hard to build a record on issues important to Indian country. We have held more than 45 hearings, roundtable discussions and listening sessions since March. We have passed several bills critical to the identity of Native peoples, and their ability to safeguard their communities and educate their young. Vice-Chairman John Barrasso and I have worked together to promote legislation that will serve Indian country, and the Committee has a demonstrated record of bipartisanship, putting Native priorities above party lines. In the second session of this Congress, we will continue to educate our colleagues in the Senate on the unique obligations and trust responsibility the United States has to its Indigenous Peoples.
What has been your biggest accomplishment on Indian affairs this year?
I am very proud that under my leadership the SAVE Native Women Act, Native CLASS Act and the Carcieri fix bill have been approved by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
The Stand Against Violence and Empower Native Women (SAVE Native Women) Act is a bill that is very close to my heart. My bill would repair the fragmented criminal justice system that currently exists in Indian country, give tribes more power to prosecute those who are committing violent and sexual crimes against women, improve the Native programs under the Violence Against Women Act, and improve data gathering programs to better understand and respond to sex trafficking of Native women. Although we cannot change the past or right the wrongs for those who have been victimized, we can change their futures by passing legislation to better protect Native women, children and families, and by putting a stop to this cycle of violence.
The Native Culture, Language and Access for Success in Schools (Native CLASS) Act provides a fundamental shift in how we think about Native education. For over 80 years, the federal government has failed to educate Native children effectively. As a result, Native communities have taken it upon themselves to build schools, grounded in their languages and cultures, and are demonstrating promising trends in improving Native education. My bill embraces these promising innovations, empowers tribes to be partners in their own education systems, and provides much stronger accountability by state and local agencies to Native communities for their children’s education.
The bicameral and bipartisan Carcieri fix bill is necessary for the United States government to fulfill its trust responsibility towards tribes and Native peoples. The Carcieri ruling has created two classes of tribes – those who can have lands taken into trust and those who cannot. Creating this inequality runs counter to established federal Indian policy and Congressional intent in enacting the Indian Reorganization Act. Congress must step in to preserve tribes’ ability to provide basic governmental services to their members and to reaffirm the authority the Secretary has had since 1934 to acquire trust lands for all tribes.
Although these bills have not yet had their day on the floor, we have built a strong legislative record, which will support future passage.
What has been your biggest regret in terms of Indian affairs legislation that hasn’t been accomplished this year?
We are still working to secure passage of my two top legislative priorities, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act and the Carcieri Fix legislation, by the full Senate before this Congress ends in 2013. These measures are critically important, and I will continue to work tirelessly to see them passed.
Why has a clean Carcieri fix been so difficult to achieve this Congress?
Many lawmakers do not understand the economic and public safety consequences associated with the Carcieri decision. Carcieri has created instability in Native and rural communities across the country, and a legislative fix would create over 100,000 jobs for American workers and significantly improve law enforcement on reservations and in surrounding areas.
Do you think President Obama truly understands Indian issues? Is he a strong advocate for Indians?
President Obama has demonstrated a strong understanding of the government-to-government relationship that exists between tribes and the United States. I commend the president’s commitment to consultation in every agency. He knows that asking for input from tribes is the best way to understand Native issues. This year, President Obama made a clear commitment to resolving the Carcieri decision and asked Congress to restore the Secretary of the Interior’s authority to take lands into trust for all tribes. Obama appointee, Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, has also been a strong advocate for common-sense solutions and the principles of self-determination. I look forward to our continued work with the Obama Administration.
When you retire in January 2013, Indians will lose a major advocate in Congress. Do you think that Natives have enough really strong political advocates in Washington, D.C.?
Mahalo, thank you, for your kind words. Working on Native issues has been a passion of mine for as long as I’ve served in Congress. But there are certainly other champions of Native issues in the Congress, including members of the Native American Caucus and the Indian Affairs Committee. I strongly encourage Native communities to participate in the process—to advocate their issues, educate members of Congress and, of course, exercise their fundamental right to vote.
Why did this Congress undercut the Tribal Law and Order Act by not appropriating important and much needed funds to it in November?
Like every American family, the Congress has had to contemplate how to do more with less and has had to make very difficult decisions to try to balance our budget. While the Committee has worked very hard to protect Indian programs throughout the budgetary process, no federal program was immune from budget cuts.
Can you explain your strategy for achieving a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill before your retirement?
The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act is a matter of justice and parity. I will continue to educate my colleagues and seek every option for passing this bill. I have worked on this bill for over a decade, on this cause for over two decades, and I will fight until my last day in office to secure passage of this bill.
Why has passage of Native Hawaiian recognition been so hard to achieve?
Native Hawaiians have been federally recognized as a Native people for over 90 years. The Congress has exercised its Indian Affairs powers where they are concerned in over 150 pieces of legislation. The challenge, however, has been that several of my colleagues do not understand Hawaii’s unique history, and for some, the larger history of the United States and its Native peoples generally. I believe my bill would pass a simple up or down vote on the Senate floor. However, Senate procedural rules have not allowed the bill to be called up for a vote in over ten years due to the reservations of just a few of my colleagues.
What has been the highlight of your career in working on Native issues?
Throughout my career, I have sought to share the aloha spirit in Washington, and I have used it to get things done. As a Native Hawaiian, doing things with aloha, and being pono – right and just – in my dealings with colleagues and constituents is part of who I am. I believe I am proof that being who we are, as Native peoples, can be effective.
I believe that consensus building is important to passing meaningful legislation. Even though it can sometimes take a long time to develop a consensus in Washington, I am proud to have been a strong voice on issues important to Indian country, helping to move important legislation forward.
I am honored to have had a role in securing an apology from Congress and President Clinton to the Native Hawaiian community in 1993 for the United States’ role in overthrowing the Kingdom of Hawaii’s government and the subsequent loss of their right to self-determination. I believe this apology paved the way for Native American Apology Resolution, which President Obama signed in 2009.
I am also proud of the advocacy work that I put forth with the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I championed the declaration while it was still a draft. I saw that UNDRIP would set a precedent of human rights for Indigenous Peoples worldwide, and I am pleased that our country has signed on to the declaration.
We may not solve everything this Congress, but in my capacity as Chairman I can contribute to the dialogue that will lead to future solutions.